Best laid plans

Oh, I had such plans for Tuesday.

When I began my part-time teaching job, I was determined to work only on the days I teach. This would give me all of every-other-weekday off. I’d teach in the mornings and do all my prep and grading work in the afternoons.

Those off days? Those would be a luxury of time filled with things bolstering enough to get me through the work days: writing, creative projects, cooking, reading, leisurely visits with friends. Maybe even some naps.

It hasn’t gone like that, so much so that Tuesday was the first day this school year that I could actually have an entire weekday free from work.

I was going to run to a local shopping center to pick up some things. I was going to go to the produce stand to buy ingredients for soup and some pumpkins for the front porch, and then to the grocery store to get some other things we were out of. I was going to make soup, and put out the pumpkins, and process a box or two of things in the garage that is still full of stuff from Cane’s house. I was going to spend some time with my son.

I put my back out in the morning, sliding a storage container out from under the bed, but I downed some ibuprofen and was out of the house by 10:30. I had finished the shopping center stops by 11:45, when I took a call from a friend. I sat in my car for over an hour, mostly listening and being witness to a challenging situation she’s dealing with. I thought of my list and let it go for a bit. This is what you wanted more of, I thought to myself. Time to be present for the people in your life. That’s more important than pumpkins or cleaning the garage out. And it was, and I was glad to use some of my day for that. I still had plenty of time left.

After our call ended, I turned my key in the ignition, ready to head to the produce market, and…nothing. The engine didn’t even click. The dashboard lights blinked at me, then went blank, except for one with a lock icon.

I called Cane, who helped me troubleshoot, and we thought the problem might be that the antitheft system had been activated. From our Googling, it seemed that perhaps I needed to let the car sit for a bit, so I decided to have lunch in a nearby restaurant.

I let a little more of my plan go, but not as easily. It was not the lunch I had wanted, but it was not a bad lunch, either. Still, I had so wanted a day mostly at home, puttering and making comfort food and just being in the place I love. I was now going to have much less of that than I’d hoped for.

I went back to the car and tried the things the internets had suggested I try, and…still nothing. I called the dealership and talked to someone in the repair center, who suggested it might be more likely that I had a dead battery. “Try giving it a jump, and then call us back if that doesn’t work.”

And there went what was left of my day. It was already after 2:00 by then, and it didn’t make sense to call for roadside assistance when Cane would be off work at 3:30. After having a mini-melt down (my back still hurt, and I wasn’t going to have time to make the soup, and I didn’t know what I was going to do if the car didn’t start, and I hate it when I feel at the mercy of things I can’t control), I let the rest of my plans go. I used a bit of my time in the car thinking about plans and how they do and don’t serve us. Then I took a nap.

The car started right away when we gave it a jump. (We still don’t know what caused it to go dead, but it’s been just fine ever since.) Rather than trying to make the soup work or figure out something else to make for dinner, I gave myself permission to go home and sit in a comfortable chair with a heating pad and a book and have my son pick up takeout pizza.

I had a wonderful evening.

Wednesday I had every intention of working all day so that Thursday could be that work-free day I’ve been dreaming of, but Wednesday afternoon I was so exhausted from low-grade headache and back pain and a morning of teaching that I took a nap instead. This, too, is what you said you wanted, I reminded myself. Enough ease in your schedule to give your body more of what it needs. I slept well, and when I woke I made the soup I’d originally planned for Tuesday. I never did do any prep work that afternoon, but it was OK. I adjusted my plans for Thursday.

Thursday afternoon I had a long and unexpected visit with a different friend, and my plans flew out the window again. It was the first time we’d talked since we both returned to in-person teaching, and much of our conversation was about how our lives are both the same as and different from what they were before March 13, 2020, when our world stopped. We did some wondering about our labor and supply chain issues and all the folks who, seemingly, have decided that they are not going to return to life as they knew it before that day when we went home for what we were told would be just a week or two. How do they do it? we wondered. Then,

“I guess I’m one of those people,” I said. “I didn’t go back.”

I can see, too, that my students haven’t really gone back, either. Like me, they are where they were–but important things are not the same, and we’re not the same, either. They are not driven by the same things as those I knew before, and they expect different things from us. “Good morning, Ms. Ramstad,” one began an email to me this week. “I want to let you know that I won’t be in class on Friday because I am taking a mental health day.”

Good for you, I thought, and marveled a bit at how things have changed in the twelve years since I last had my own classroom. On Friday, my students gave presentations about aspects of their lives that have likely contributed to their biases, and they talked freely about all kinds of things that would once have been the stuff of secrets or privacy or shame: religious belief, gender identity, divorce, addiction, discrimination, incarceration, mental health.

As each shared pieces of themselves with the rest of us, part of groundwork we are laying to be able to talk productively about important and controversial topics, I felt myself softening and opening and feeling connection with fellow humans. By the end of my classes, I felt fuller, not depleted. I needed no recovery from the day’s work; instead, the day’s work gave me some recovery from the on-going dire news of the world.

Each day, they teach me more about how to be a teacher for them and how to live in the world that is emerging from and for us. In the presence of these complex, resilient, and open people who sit in front of me every other day, I have seen more and more clearly how arbitrary and unnecessary so many things in schools have been–like rigid plans and inflexible due dates. The last time I was a teacher, I spent so much energy managing due dates and absences and the rules around them. If your absence was excused you got an extension on a due date, and if it wasn’t you didn’t, and if the assignment was late you lost points on it, and if it was on time you didn’t. Tracking all of that was time-consuming and exhausting, and our practices rested an all kinds of assumptions about what students would do and should do.

I didn’t question it much, though; it was just how it was. I never liked it, but I felt I had to go along. It was what everyone did. We assumed that if we didn’t do such things, no one would ever turn anything in on time. It was what students expected, too. If we didn’t take off points for late work, students who turned their work in on time would complain that it wasn’t fair. They’d stayed up all night to get it done and they should be rewarded for that. (And others punished for not doing it.) If we didn’t hold students accountable for meeting deadlines, we said, they’d never learn the importance of doing it.

What a crock! What a waste. What needless labor and pain for all of us that didn’t need to be. We imposed it upon ourselves. We did it because that’s how it had always been done, and because it’s what had been done to us. It felt natural and right (even when it felt wrong), but it was all something we’d manufactured. It didn’t occur to them or us that, perhaps, the true unfairness was in expecting students to sacrifice their health or other important things for a grade.

Now, in the wake of Covid, doing something only because it’s the way we used to do it feels like a thing of the past. We are reminded frequently of all that our students have been through and of what they are still enduring, and many things seem up for reconsideration.

Now, I strive to ground all of my practices in authentic purpose and true care. When I could see that some students were submitting assignments in the middle of the night, I told them that I never want to see that they’ve turned an assignment in after 11:00 pm. I’d rather they sleep and turn it in late. It doesn’t mean I don’t have due dates. I do. Every time, many students meet them, and some don’t. When they don’t, though, our conversations are not about the points they’ll lose. They are instead about what barriers are keeping them from getting their work done and what strategies we might use to remove them. No one seems to care that someone who turned the assignment in late gets the same full credit as someone who turned it in on time. Maybe it’s because we’ve talked about how grades should reflect what we know and can do with regard to our learning standards (rather than our behaviors), or maybe it’s because they like knowing that, should they need it, they will be given some grace when they can’t meet a deadline. (Because things happen to all of us, eventually.)

To be honest, I don’t know why they’re responding differently. I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter.

It is so freeing to teach this way, to be this way. It feels so much more humane. There are some natural consequences when deadlines are missed (say, when progress report grades are due), but I am driven much less by plans and deadlines that I’ve created and much more by what all of us need. The grace I extend comes back to me; when I explained to my students that some assignments wouldn’t be reflected in the progress report grades because I hadn’t had time to grade them yet, no one grumbled. It’s just how we are now, it seems. We trust that the soup will get made eventually, and some nights we eat take-out pizza because that’s all we can manage if we want to be OK. We’ll all live.

As I rest from this week and begin turning toward the next one, I’m wondering what more I can let go of, in order to free my hands for other things to hold on to. This week, the more I let go of ideas about some days being for work and others for the things I want to do, the more work became a fulfilling thing I wanted to do, and the more peace I felt about whatever I could and couldn’t accomplish in any given day, either in my school life or my home life.

All of this pondering about plans sent me back to the Burns poem alluded to in the title of this post, and re-reading it I focused on things I never have before, such as its line about Man’s dominion breaking social union. I realized how much our pandemic has been like his farmer’s plow, and how much I’m coming to think, like the farmer, that in spite of the sudden and unwanted destruction we’ve lived through (those of us who are still alive), it might be better to be the mouse than him, who looks back at prospects drear and forward to fears. Even though I know it could be upturned at any moment, I’m much preferring the honest nest I’m building now than the one that gave me false security before.

Once we’d have thought this an ugly pumpkin, but now we admire it. There’s a metaphor there.

Fall Equinox

The week of the equinox I keep taking photos of my cut tomatoes, trying (and failing) to capture what they are before they’re gone. Their catacomb whorls of sweet seed and juice have ruined me for the market’s bland offerings, finally convincing me that tomatoes are, indeed, a fruit. 

In the morning dark of autumn’s first full day, I read Kooser poems* in bed. Under low lamplight I meet his parents and grandparents, and I think:  I know these people. I used to live in their world. I had a great-grandmother who wore boxy black shoes, and a father who smelled of Old Spice. I lived at their slow pace, in a place where a woman might throw rainbows from a basin of used dishwater. 

When I was a girl, I believed that one day I would understand how we all make our place in the world. When I was a young teacher, a young mother, I thought I did. I was wrong (but not entirely).

What should I wish for my children? The more I live, the less I am sure of. 

This week I gave my students an assignment to read the academic standards to which we will all be held accountable. “What is a ‘grade level band of text complexity’?” they asked, their tongues tripping over familiar stones arranged into an unfamiliar pattern. 

I laid the system of my classroom bare and invited them to choose how they will operate within it. “What does it mean to you, to do well in school?” I asked. They live in a viral world of devious licks and Likes, but also one in which a person might grow their own food. 

Later, after the sky lightens, I let the dog into the backyard and pick pears from our tree. Fruit fallen onto the sun-scorched grass is half-eaten, and I wonder what kind of animal we are feeding. When I wash my lunch dishes at the sink, warm water running over my hands, I think of a woman I once worked with who always washed her dishes with cold. “Hot water is too expensive,” she told me. I was in college, and it had never occurred to me that a person could wash with anything other than warm or that heat could cost too much. I remember her as happy, in love with her children.

What does it mean to live well? I type later, sitting in a chair at a table in front of a window, in the middle of a day in which I could choose to do anything, or nothing.  

The closer I get to the end, the more I find answers in memory, in poetry, in tomatoes.

*Delights and Shadows

****

It has been a beautiful week in my part of the world. We are definitely feeling the shorter days, which helps us to savor the evening light. A bit of rain has returned some green to the garden, and we’re happy to leave August’s dull, brittle dust in the rearview of this year.

We’re settling into our school year routines. I’m still finding my way to ones that will work for my new situation. It’s a matter of composing and adjusting my thoughts as much as my actions. I’m living in some space between working and retired (though let me tell you: I am definitely working), which isn’t what I mentally prepared for and is something for which I don’t really have models. So much of what determines our feelings is based on what we expect. Originally I had hoped to contain my work to the days I actually teach, but that’s a goal not yet within reach. I think I can get there. Maybe. I’m trying to let go of the ideas I once had and just experience the things that come at me each day, let myself be open to all the things that each might be.

This week had a bit more ease than the last, despite having our first instances of students being out on quarantine. One of my classes was missing nearly a quarter of its students the last time we met, and it changed the whole dynamic of the room. The week before, one of our partner high schools closed entirely for 10 days because they had four positive cases but were unable to determine close contacts due to a lack of sound protocols. Things are both normal and not-normal simultaneously. I’m working hard not to gaslight my students, to walk a line between acknowledging what we’re dealing with and getting on with the business of learning in spite of what’s changed and changing. (My colleagues and I have adopted “pivot” as our word of the year.) When I shared with some students that the other English teachers and I had made an agreement to strive for no homework, their relief was palpable. I’ve already fallen in love with my students, and I feel fiercely protective of them. I’ve been thinking hard about what is essential and what is not, which came out in the writing above.

I hope the first week of the new season brings good things to you, whatever that means for you. I would love to hear how things are in your part of the world.

Survivor Guilt

Mary Oliver got it right, you know:  
You need not repent your survival 
as if it were a sin. 

I know, I know 
(believe me, I know): 
You feel it is your duty–
your burden, your privilege, your gift–
to rush back into the building full
of beams rotten with flame,
air fouled with smoke,
to pull out as many others as you can.

Maybe it is, for a time.
It can be hard to know
what we owe others.
It can be hard to know
if the cause is lost and collapse
–no matter what we do–
inevitable,

but I’m here to tell you,
one survivor to another:
We never have to burn with it,
our mouths filling with smoke,
our limbs turning to ash.

Imagine your mother,
what she would say if she could see you
in the second-story window, 
your mouth a wilting O through a smoky pane.

Imagine what you would say
if it were your child up there,
flames under her feet:

Run 

Love yourself as your mother would,
as you love your child.

Save yourself. 

Not so you can run back into that building,
or into some other one so far gone
it cannot stand.

There will always be buildings on fire. 
There will always be others trapped inside.
Your death won’t change that.  

Maybe, some other time, 
you will be one of them, but
this time, you aren’t. 

Don’t waste the gift of your second chance.

Go find yourself a solid structure
and tend to it. 
Do your best to keep the exits clear,
Extinguishers near. 

And this time, if you smell smoke
and shout fire and no one listens, 
if you start beating at sparks with blankets
only to have others accuse you of fanning flames, 

get out before you get so turned around 
you don’t know which doors lead to closets
and which to stairs.

Let yourself go
love what you love.

****

It’s so hard to know, isn’t it, when you should stick with something and try to save it, and when you should walk (or run) away from it because nothing you might do will. It is hard to know when quitting or leaving is weakness and when it is strength.

So many times in my life I have been unable to truly see and understand a situation until I’ve been able to get away from it. We become acclimated to what surrounds us, and we tell ourselves things we want to be true or need to believe in order to be OK where we are.

When I left classroom teaching in 2009, I had a nearly-finished poetry manuscript, plus a folder with about 20 others that I named “divorce poems.” Since 2011, I may have drafted 2 or 3 other poems. (Maybe. It might have been fewer than that.) I think I have a hard copy of the manuscript in a box somewhere, but I’m not sure where the box might be. The folder was digital and its poems are trapped on the hard drive of some long-discarded laptop.

That’s OK. We can’t save all our darlings, can we?

This week I got to go and browse the shelves of my local library for the first time since March 2020. I knew I had missed it, but I didn’t fully feel the missing until I was back there, running my hand along spines back in the stacks. I took a “greatest hits” of Ted Kooser volume home with me, and later, sitting in my living room with late afternoon sun filling the room, I remembered what I first loved about poetry. I remembered that poetry can be made from simple language, about simple things. I remembered that it doesn’t have to be such a big, hard, artistic deal.

I also took a walk with a friend this week, and we talked about survivor guilt. I found myself continuing the conversation in my head long after we finished, and it came out of me as a poem, not prose. What you see above is a draft. It feels a little clunky, too didactic. But this blog, it’s just a notebook. This is what I scribbled in it this week. Words haven’t been coming easily to me lately. There’s a lot of shifting going on. I’ve been happy. The world still feels on fire, and I still care about that, but I’ve been happy, too. I don’t quite know what to make of that.

it’s just past 8:00 on Sunday morning, so I’m going to hit publish on this one. I have food to cook and lessons to plan and some library advocacy work to do. I hope you all have a week that’s good to you.

Well, that was a fast week

Here it is, Sunday morning, and I’ve got…nuthin’. Or, not the usual kind of something.

It was the first week of school here, and I had to take Daisy to the vet, and I worked far more than my contracted hours. I’ve been so busy doing that I haven’t had much time for thinking (which, for me, means writing).

I’ve had moments of beginning to process this experience of going back to the classroom, but it’s something that feels huge and that I cannot begin to see clearly yet. I don’t think I can really describe what it was, but I will try a little.

It’s a cliche, but it wasn’t unlike riding a bike or skating after a long time of not biking or skating. I felt a little wobbly at first, but then I got my balance back and the wheels flew and it felt so right. Righter than anything has felt for years and years and years. It was hard and fun and exhausting. I have to think so hard when I am teaching–constantly taking in information and processing/assessing it and deciding what my next move needs to be, often in mere seconds. It works my body, too, in a way it hasn’t worked in so long; at one point, I realized sweat was running down my face inside my mask, and I was ravenous by the time I got to lunch. But at the same time, while I was in it, I wasn’t aware that I was thinking hard or that I was sweaty or hungry or thirsty. I was entirely present and engaged and energized and calm.

At the risk of sounding corny or over-wrought, I will say that it felt like my whole being was vibrating, maybe singing. I was very much in the state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as flow, one in which you become so involved in what you are doing that you can lose all sense of time and of yourself. Being able to experience flow states is, according to Csikszentmihalyi, essential to happiness. While I certainly had moments of flow in my earlier teaching experiences, I don’t remember it ever feeling quite like it did this past week.

I felt that flow state not only while teaching my classes, but also later in the day while creating lessons for the next time we’d meet. For me, teaching is a highly creative act of problem-solving, and my brain loves the play of figuring out how to effectively connect with other brains by creating sequences of experiences that will engage and support them in strengthening or building neural networks. What was wonderful this week–and what I’ve never before experienced as a classroom teacher–is that I had enough time to fully immerse in planning. I was able to think about and design for nuance in my instruction, those small details that can make understanding happen more quickly and easily. I was able to think deeply about sequence and resources and how to build supports.

Because I am teaching only two block classes (each 90 minutes long) every other day, I can teach at a higher pitch than I ever have before. Although I’m not aware of how hard my body is working while I’m immersed in it, I feel it afterward. I had time to recover between Wednesday and Friday. I am not having to pace myself the way I would if I had to teach 3 block classes (or 6 standard classes) every day, as most of my colleagues do.

Aside from issues of time, I think there are other factors making this feel like something I’ve never quite experienced before. In the article linked to above, there is a TED talk in which Csikszentmihalyi says a person needs about 10 years of training and learning for the kind of deep knowledge that we need to create at high levels. For the last 12 years, I have been immersed in learning about how to teach. I was able to receive in-depth training on instruction, assessment, several different pedagogies, and equity. I have been in countless classrooms, working with many different kinds of teachers, observing and thinking deeply about their practice. I knew I was a competent teacher before I left the classroom (after 19 years of teaching), but the depth of knowledge I had then is so shallow compared to what I know now. And it’s not just knowledge of techniques or pedagogies or frameworks; it’s also knowledge of people. In those 12 years, I had experiences with students in every grade from kindergarten through 12th; with teachers from those just starting to those about to retire; with support staff and administrators and instructional coaches in a variety of roles. I learned so much about what motivates people and opens them up and shuts them down and helps them grow. When I stood before my students this week, I saw them in ways I never could have before all of the experiences I had after leaving my earlier classrooms. I met them in ways I was never able to before.

Can you imagine what education might be, if every teacher had opportunities to learn deeply, plan completely, and adequately rest between classes?

I don’t know what I will be able to do with the understandings that are only just starting to develop. I’m seeing things about teaching, learning, creativity, struggle, work, and rest that I haven’t really understood before. But I’m grateful to be having them, even as they raise some difficult feelings. As I have experienced so much more joy in the past week at work than I had in all of last year, it’s been hard not to also feel anger and regret. Part of me is furious about how much suffering there is in our schools for both students and staff. In our world. We don’t have to do things the way we do them; our systems are a result of our priorities and our choices. If we truly valued our children the way we like to say we do, schools would look and function in radically different ways than they currently do.

At any rate, I hope to get back to the kind of writing I am more used to doing soon. But not today. Today I hope to stave off a headache that’s been toying with me for two days by getting off screens and heading to the garden. On Thursday, my day off, I had high hopes for spending time there, but our old Daisy refused her food (something I cannot ever remember her doing), and she could not be comforted, even when I held her. I called the vet, something that (if I’m being honest) I’ve avoided doing ever since we had to let Rocky go. Realistically, I know our options are quite limited at this stage.

She is still with us and doing better, but the vet and I had to have The Talk, and I know in a new way that our remaining time is short. A next visit will likely have a different outcome. All of our remaining time is short, if you think about it. I doubt any of us will feel, at the end of our lives, that we had quite enough. Off to savor some of mine, and I hope that you are able to do that today, too.

On blooming (and not)

On this Labor Day weekend, I feel so full from the past week I don’t even know how to start. It was my first in my new job at a new school, and I have so many thoughts/feelings about:

Work

Burnout

Community

Culture

Teaching

Trauma

Growth

(And that’s just about what’s going on in my personal world. What a dumpster-fire of a week it’s been in the world at large! Haven’t begun to process all of that yet.)

One day this week I was scrolling a social media channel and I saw a photo full of now-former colleagues. They were doing something fun together, and I felt this tight little feeling in my chest. Not because I missed them or wished I’d been included, but because I felt so relieved to be out of the place I’ve been and sad/weird about feeling relieved. They are not terrible people, and it is not a terrible place. But, now that I don’t have to work there any more, I can finally fully admit to myself how much it just wasn’t my place. Their community and its culture isn’t mine.

And that’s OK. It’s good to know.

I have spent the last 12 years trying desperately to fit into a place that simply wasn’t my place, and…oh my god what that did to me. There are people in that place I treasure, and going there was the right move when I made it. It gave me things I needed, and I did some good work there, and I learned so much. I’m deeply grateful for the learning and for the people who kept me afloat, but the lightness I feel now that I am in a place that fits, preparing to do work that fits, in conditions that feel manageable? I don’t have words to convey it.

After one week in my new/old place/community/culture, I feel more belonging than I did in 12 years in the one I just left–which has blown open truths I had never fully admitted to myself. I used to joke/not-joke to new hires in my former district that after ___ years, I still felt like a newbie. What that meant was: This is a tight community, and I still feel like an outsider. While I was known and had those I grew close to, I also always felt a wall with many people. Not a thick one, but an impenetrable one. Most (though not all) of those I grew close to were on my side of it. The wall was a thing we sometimes talked about. No one was ever unkind or disrespectful to me, but I rarely felt the kind of ease that comes with knowing you are fully accepted. That you will be given grace for your foibles and fumbles. That you will be understood. That you can be your full, real self and others will be theirs with you and you’ll still like and respect each other. While I had pockets of people with whom I did feel that kind of ease and knowing, I never had it in a general sense. In many situations, part of me was always on guard. (And, I’m sure, others never felt that kind of acceptance from me.)

It is exhausting to spend so much of your life in a stance of vigilance, especially when you are in denial about why.

I kept thinking the problem–that work took such a toll on me–was in what I was doing. I thought if only I did something different (held different boundaries, communicated in different ways, set different priorities, worked in different buildings, took a different position, etc. ad nauseum), I could make it better. I tried so many different ways to be OK there.

After years of failing to make things better, I began to think that the problem was within me: Maybe I was just too old and tired. Maybe I’d just been doing this work too long. Maybe my time had passed. Maybe I no longer had what it takes to be good at this. I never thought I was the best at what I do, but I always felt competent and that I had valuable contributions to make. I lost that confidence.

Eventually, I also lost interest in things I had once found compelling. I didn’t want to read or learn about new ideas or practices in education. I cared, but only in an abstract sort of way. I more fully understood my child who once said about school: “I want to want to do it, but I don’t.” I stopped keeping up, and then felt like I was falling behind and becoming more irrelevant by the day. It all made me so weary, and all I wanted to do was stay home and nest. I knew that I was suffering from burnout, and I knew systemic issues were at play, but it still felt like the root of the problem was something within me, and that it wouldn’t/couldn’t be better anywhere else–because I’d still be wherever I went.

Then came the pandemic.

While many things about the pandemic shutdown of schools was hard, I also felt a tremendous easing. It was such a relief to spend my days in a place I felt freer. The uncomfortable parts of my job that remained became easier to tolerate. I had fewer migraines and began sleeping better. Even in the midst of trauma (after trauma after trauma), I was healthier and…happier? (Yes, happier. Which brings to mind the time I looked forward to major surgery for the break that staying in the hospital would provide, but I’ll save that story for another time.) I even started to feel a little better about my ability to contribute, and better able to see which failings were mine (I am older and don’t have the physical stamina I once had) and which belonged to a broken system. I could no longer deny how toxic many things about my work situation had become for me, and when we returned to school buildings last spring the idea of returning to my job(s) in the fall became untenable.

Of course, likely the only reason I was able to come out of denial was that I had options; last January I became eligible for full retirement, and I’m no longer supporting my children financially. I’m sure the reason I didn’t allow myself to fully feel and see the truth of the situation earlier was that I needed it to be OK for me to be there. For a variety of reasons, changing districts to do library or instructional coaching work presented different sets of dilemmas that did not feel better than the ones I had. Returning to the demands of full-time English teaching (the only subject I can teach) would have been no more manageable than what I was doing, even in the best-fitting community, because of the unmanageable work load. But leaving the salary and benefits I earned was also not an option; I was supporting children as well as myself. I told myself what I had to in order to be OK-enough to stay.

What I am understanding this week is that there was likely nothing I could have done to make it better. It just wasn’t my right place or right work or right workload.

The most amazing thing to me (in this time full of amazement) is how different I feel to be doing something I’ve done for so long. This back to school season feels nothing like the 31 others I’ve lived. The return to school each year has always been a time marked by dread. While each year (except the last) always contained things I looked forward to and was excited about, there was also always sadness and resignation. It meant returning to imbalance and exhaustion and ethical compromise–all of which stemmed from simply never having enough time to do all that needed doing. Important parts of me that opened during the summer months shut down when I returned to school. This year, in spite of all that is unknown and likely to be challenging, I feel only light, happy, and open. I cannot remember a time in my life that I have felt as down-to-the-bone good as I do right now.

I feel that way because I’m returning to work that is a better fit for me. I feel that way because it is my choice to do this work; I didn’t feel trapped by economic need. I feel that way because I will have a manageable work load that gives me enough time to take care of my personal and family needs, as well as time for things I simply want to do. I feel this way because I get to do work that aligns with my values and that I know I can do well.

Think of what a difference it could make to our children if all their teachers felt light, happy, and open as they return to school! Think of what a difference it could make to our world if everybody felt light, happy, and open about their work, able to do the kind that is a good fit for them, in places where they feel safe and accepted and able to be the best version of themselves. These insights I’m gaining about community, belonging, competence, choice, and meaning will definitely inform my practices with students this year as I facilitate their work of learning, as well as choices I continue to make about where and how to work, live, and be.

This post is already too long for a deep-dive into a critique of work in a world driven by capitalism (that others are doing so much better than I could, anyway), but on this Labor Day weekend, I am full of ideas and wishes and longings for how work could be different for all of us, and what that could mean for our planet and societies. I am so grateful for new colleagues who feel like my people and who have welcomed me into their community. I can’t wait to work beside them and to learn from and with them. I wish they were not going to have to carry the kind of weight that I did for so many years, but I know that most of them will. I’m wishing that all of them and all of you and everyone I know could work in the way I now get to, so that we might all bloom where we’re planted–because blooming isn’t just a matter of your attitude or desire or effort. (Just ask my raspberries.) It’s about having the conditions you need to live, grow, and thrive.

“Bloom Where You’re Planted” by Ian Varley is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Some thoughts on revision

It is still summer here, but this week marks a turning; the mornings have been cool, and at the end of a warm day I needed a sweater for an after-dinner walk. The pears on the backyard tree are suddenly pendulous, and the lettuces I never got around to using have bolted. Every day I told myself that I must pick the cherry tomatoes that are beginning to rot on the vine, but I didn’t get to them until Saturday. My interest in the garden is waning as much as the season.

It was our last week before Cane and I return to school, and our focus has turned inward. We spent much of the week on painting a back room, and all the doors in our hallway. (There are 7! A ridiculous number for an 1,100 sq. ft. house, but ours is the clown car of houses; it also has 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and a full laundry room.) We also finished working on our renovation of the front of the house–or, at least, finished working on it for this year.

When I look at the house’s listing photos from 2018 and then those I’ve taken today, I am struck by the power of vision and revision.

It is the same house, and it is not.

Our changes were driven by function: I wanted more light in the house. The first year I thinned and cut back the camellias. I wanted more light, but I also liked the privacy screen they provided, so I didn’t cut too much. I planted some things around the camellias to fill in the space that felt too empty after making them smaller.

During our first pandemic spring, as the weather warmed, we found ourselves sitting on the front steps at the end of the day with a cold beverage. We talked about how it would be nice if the porch were large enough to hold some chairs, as sitting on the hard steps with only a post at our backs for support wasn’t very comfortable. We found that we liked sitting there and seeing all the people who walk by, and listening to the boys one door down shoot baskets in the street. Having a privacy screen began to feel less important than having a greater connection to the world. We cut the camellias way back, and I used a good chunk of my stimulus check to buy even more plants to fill in the spaces below them. We began talking about extending the porch, but I wanted the camellias to stay.

That spring and summer, we walked all over our city. Walking was one of the few things we could do for entertainment outside the house. We’d drive to different neighborhoods and walk their streets, talking about the houses we’d see, analyzing what made them appealing (or not). I started taking photos of houses with features I thought I’d like to have in mine.

We noticed that we liked a low porch with ranch homes; they felt inviting. We liked thicker post beams and window boxes and wood doors.

I decided I’d rather have a low deck than the camellias. Near the end of the summer I got brave and told Cane I was ready to take them all the way out, something he’d been advocating for a while, but when we did I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Did I cut out too much? The front of the house felt empty, and maybe too exposed. And there still wasn’t as much light inside the house as I’d hoped there would be. I had wanted camellias in my yard for a long time–the presence of them had been a selling point when I was making the decision to buy the house–and I’d gone and destroyed them. There was no putting those mature trees back once they were gone. It wasn’t like cutting bangs, you know?
I had to live with it for awhile like that (a whole year, as it turned out) before feeling comfortable with it and knowing what to do next.

These thoughts of revision and revision processes have been much on my mind this week, as I start preparing to return to classroom teaching for the first time in twelve (12!!!) years.

To put things in some perspective: My students were four years old the last time I was a classroom teacher. They’ve never really known a world without smartphones. I left the classroom the same year I started a Facebook account. There was no Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, or Tiktok around the last time I was an English teacher. Obama had just begun the first year of his first term and many were celebrating our wonderful post-racial world. (Hah!)

Waking up with a headache one morning this week and wanting to keep my eyes away from screens, I wandered to my bookcase and pulled out William Stafford’s You Must Revise Your Life. It had been years since I’d looked at it. Stafford grew up in the midwest but is legend in my part of the world, and I earned my M.A.T. at the school he made his academic home (Lewis and Clark College). His ideas about teaching, writing, and learning were seminal in my development as both a writer and teacher, and seeing the passages I’d marked decades ago felt a little like time traveling:

At first I taught as those around me did–correcting papers, pushing students to ‘succeed.’ But gradually my ways changed. A teacher just retiring at San Jose State had told me that teaching composition got harder and harder. She was writing more on a student’s paper that the student had written. She was heroic. But I thought mistakenly so.

My classes became more like ballet than like workshops. What did a piece of writing mean?–not what did it say, but what did it portend, or hint, or reveal, about that surely valid human impulse that brought it about? My job was not to correct but to understand and participate. A student’s paper was a test for me, and I began not to put any evaluation remarks at all on a paper. My remarks were meant to show my accompaniment, sometimes my readiness to learn more.

(You Must Revise Your Life, ©1986, page 17-18 of the The University of Michigan Press’s 2006 edition)

When I began teaching, there was a paradigmatic war raging in English departments between traditionalists and those who believed in the kind of teaching Stafford espoused. I was wounded in more than one skirmish in my first years of teaching. From my (admittedly limited) vantage point, I’d say that the movement toward standards and accountability ushered in by 2001’s No Child Left Behind legislation gave the win to the traditionalists and killed Stafford’s kind of pedagogy.

When I read, “The student should not worry about standards. I won’t. And I will never try to make the student either complacent or panicked about external obligation. Never. That kind of measuring is not what art, what writing, is about,” I sighed (page 94). Equating writing with art ignores the writing that is done not to create art but to gain admittance through gates; that’s a kind of ignoring I once did but now can’t do. I’ve come to understand the privilege inherent in such a position, and the disservice I might do by not being explicit with students about what they need to be able to do to pass through barriers to schools, scholarships, and jobs. But I sighed also because in the schools I’ve known, writing has become a thing so broken down into its concrete, measurable parts that we’ve lost sight of the whole; we’ve turned process into something nearly void of space for discovery or wonder–something essential to all kinds of writing, even the gate-keeping kind. I might argue that the same has been true of how we view and work with students. There was a lot of talk of “the whole student” in my early years of teaching, but that’s not terminology I’ve heard for years. I suppose we are turning back to that now, with understanding borne of the pandemic and our recent emphasis on social and emotional learning, but our high school students have spent their entire eduction in a system driven by data, test scores, and the attainment of discrete skills and bites of knowledge. The reasons for this are myriad and complex and not really germane to my main point, which is that the students I will be meeting in a little more than a week are going to be different in important ways from those I once taught, as will the context in which I’ll be teaching.

And that’s OK. I am different, too. I need to revise my practice as I have been revising my life.

As I prepare to return to something I once thought I’d left forever, I’m thinking a lot about the project we’ve been engaged in of revising our house. I look at those earlier photos of our home and see what a closed, uninviting place it was. I think of my worries about being seen as I went about the business of living within its walls, and how I was afraid to lose the camellia’s screen. I think about how I was afraid to get rid of the camellia because it was a thing I had once wanted, even though it was keeping me from other things I now value more. I think about how I was initially uncomfortable with the openness I now treasure.

I have been wondering what, like the camellia, I may have to cut out of my ways of teaching–wrong and risky as it may feel to do so. I have been wondering how I can create a classroom with an open porch, with doors that are more window than wood. I have been thinking about how Stafford is not unlike a vintage home: Clearly of and for a different era, with both features that no longer work and those worthy of preservation.

As I think about all our students have been living through in recent years–our divided and divisive politics, our climate crisis, the pandemic–it seems to me that it’s time for the pendulum to begin its arc back to a way of teaching that is more holistic. More flexible, responsive, and humane. Near the end of the book, in an interview piece called “Facing Up to the Job,” Stafford talks about visiting high schools with limited and restrictive libraries and nothing on the walls but military recruitment posters. He says:

…I’m not trying to indict anyone, but I suddenly felt forlorn. I thought those who talk about accountability in schools think they’re talking about split infinitives or something–trivialities. I’m talking about lives, vision, hope, something plain like kindness and humility, and they’d throw their kids into a school that would teach them all about split infinitives and send them straight over to drop bombs on someone. Is that accountability?

“Facing Up to the Job,” page 86.

As I watch my city struggle with soaring hospitalizations, houselessness, and crime, I’m thinking hard about what accountability really means, and I appreciate Stafford for helping me to think about it. Seems to me the world could do with a whole lot more vision, hope, kindness and humility right now.

(From an after-dinner walk at dusk last night. We’re eating out only at places with outdoor dining again. It was pretty wonderful to sit at a picnic table outside a dive bar and eat some really good fried chicken as the sun made its descent on the day, the season. Will miss this kind of evening when the weather turns.)

Maybe you can go home again?

About 20 years ago, I saw a notice in a work newsletter that a committee was forming to create a new kind of school. The idea was for several local school districts to combine resources to create advanced tech-based programs of study that none could afford to offer on their own. Core academic skills would be embedded into the context of non-academic fields, tying learning in English and science to topics students would (presumably) be highly interested in.

Well, I got myself on that committee as fast as I could. I’d been teaching English Language Arts (ELA) for a bit more than a decade then, long enough to have learned that I was not cut out to be a traditional English teacher. I loved the idea of connecting my curriculum to current, meaningful topics for students. I eventually became a member of the school’s design team, and when our public charter school opened in 2003, another teacher and I were the English department. I soon found my true home and true people working in the IT, digital media, and engineering/manufacturing programs. Teaching there was fun, creative, challenging, and rewarding. Our students attended their home high schools half-time, and our school half-time. We were small, and students traveled through their day with us in program-area cohorts, taking all of their classes with the same people. It made for tight communities and close relationships. It felt almost like family. The first few years, I thought I’d never leave and would be there for the rest of my career.

Then life happened. I got divorced and the demands of single-parenting and full-time English teaching toppled a balance I’d barely been maintaining before the divorce. The Great Recession hit, and in order to absorb devastating budget cuts the school administration decided to separate English from program areas in order to make bigger English classes that combined cohorts. This would mean going back to teaching a more traditional English curriculum. The idea of going back to traditional teaching, with an increased workload, crushed me. I left the place I loved and had helped create to take a completely different kind of job (coaching teachers) and pursue a long-deferred dream to be a teacher-librarian. Painful as it was, I knew I was not going to live out my career in that place and retire from it.

And I didn’t.

This spring, I officially retired from my career in education, but as I’ve been telling people all summer it has never felt like retirement. “It feels more like I quit,” I’d say. I just couldn’t do what I’d been doing any more. Every article I’ve read about people leaving their jobs because of what the pandemic revealed to them about work and its impacts has resonated for me. I had no real sense of closure or ending; I felt more like a person escaping from a burning ship: I had to jump off to save myself. I felt enormously fortunate to have that choice, but it didn’t feel good, leaving like that. Ending like that. I didn’t like it, but the alternatives felt impossible. Until now.

An opportunity has come up to return to that school I helped create more than 20 years ago, and I’ve taken it. I’ll be teaching two English classes, every-other-day, in the mornings. With only two classes, I’m confident that I’ll be able to take care of prep and grading in the afternoons, leaving two or three other days of the week free for other things. Instead of serving 10 entire schools in two different roles that often had me feeling isolated, conflicted, disconnected, and ineffective, I’ll belong to one school, one community, providing direct service to students. Instead of performing a role that felt increasingly at odds with my values, I will get to do work that aligns with them.

All through the spring and summer I kept seeing different kinds of jobs that felt almost-right. I started to apply for some, but I never completed any applications. At one point I told myself that I wasn’t going to take any job for a year, so that I could fully detach from how I’d lived in order to allow space for wildly new directions to appear. And then this opportunity appeared, and it felt completely right, immediately. So much so that I felt a little wary about it, as I tend to be about things that seem too good to be true. I took three days to think/feel and had multiple, long conversations with some of my most trusted people before committing. And now I am all in.

It has all felt a little magical. I tend to be skeptical of most things, and I have looked askance at the current fascination with manifesting, but… It feels like that is what has happened. Right before the pandemic hit us, Kari wrote something about wanting to stop blaming others for her unhappiness and it struck something deep within me. I was so tired of being unhappy and so tired of feeling powerless in my unhappiness. I hate toxic positivity and any solutions to personal problems that don’t consider systemic causes of them, but I sat myself down and made a mental list of all the things that weren’t working for me and asked myself what I could do to change them, by myself. I quickly realized I would have to do two things: Be open to what I started calling “radical lifestyle change” and tell myself and those close to me the truth of what I wanted (and didn’t), despite fear of my truths and of others’ responses to them. Sometimes it was scary and it was never easy, but when I remember my life two years ago and then look at what it is today, it feels like a damn miracle. (But to be clear: It’s not. I could not be where I am without systemic structures and advantages that have allowed me to make the choices I have, primarily the one that is allowing me to both draw retirement income and return to work.)

You guys: At the core of my life is a healthy, loving, committed relationship. We are creating a home that feels just right for how we live and want to live. I have time to nurture my health and relationships. I have time for creative work outside my for-pay work and to learn how to live in more congruence with my values. And now I get to go back to school, doing the kind of teaching I’ve missed for more than a decade, in the place I loved more than any other I’ve worked. I know it won’t be the place I left, and it’s going to be hard (Covid alone assures that), probably in many ways, but I am so excited to finally be tackling what feels like the right kinds of hard in this very hard time. To be starting a new chapter. To revise the ending of my story.

Washing the dishes

“It’s too late to reverse the damage done to the Earth’s climate. It’s not too late to change course right away to prevent things from getting far worse.

That’s the scientific consensus presented this morning to world leaders by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s the most complete synthesis of climate science available, based on a review of thousands of research papers assessing how the combustion of coal, oil and gas has altered the Earth’s climate and with it, human destiny.” “The Morning,” The New York Times, August 9, 2021

The dishwasher broke sometime back in late June, when we were so busybusybusy with everything. Over the 4th of July we did some half-hearted appliance shopping, but all options seemed to lead us down a path that would require kitchen renovation and we weren’t ready to go there. We talked about trying some repairs, but that was half-hearted, too. After a few weeks we bought a drying rack–just a small one, it would be good for the things we handwash once the appliance is fixed or a new one is bought. Toward the end of July I suggested that we could use the empty dishwasher as a drying rack for big things. I was joking, mostly, but I know I put a serving bowl in there. It’s probably still there. I’ve gotten used to washing the dishes by hand.

I remember my family’s first dishwasher. My dad bought it for my mom as a birthday gift. You had to roll it over to the sink and connect a hose to the faucet. I remember before that, my dad once setting up a plan in which I would do the dishes and be paid for it. There was a chart. I loved the idea for about a week, and then I stopped doing the dishes. I had choices like that. I became used to having choices like that. I assumed I’d always have them. I couldn’t imagine a reason I wouldn’t.

More than a decade ago, not long into single-motherhood, I got to spend a week in residency at Soapstone, a retreat for women writers on the Oregon coast. For a week I got to live by myself in a beautiful cabin in the forest and do nothing but eat, sleep, walk, and write. And do dishes, of course. A significant part of the Soapstone mission was stewardship of the property on which the writers’ cabins were located; I remember a sign encouraging us to use the dishwasher. It said that it was better for the land than handwashing, which felt counter-intuitive. It said it was better to run a half-full load than to use the water required to wash by hand. Sometimes I washed by hand, anyway, when I wanted just one cup or a particular bowl.

The first house I owned did not have a dishwasher. I bought it with my first husband. We were trying so hard to be adults, but we really had no business being married or owning a home. He was working as a lab tech in a research hospital and studying for the MCATs. I was in my first year of teaching. We were both floundering, in different, separate ways, which is to say: we were in our mid-20s. The sink was often filled with dirty dishes.

Last week I broke 3 glasses, two bowls, and a plate. My husband had stacked the drying rack with too many things, and when I removed a plate the balance of it all shifted and I could not stop the falling. I tried, but I realized almost instantly that there was nothing I could do to stop the shattering. The floor was covered in crystalline shards. It had a kind of beauty to it, and I was a little awed at the sheer amount of damage and at how quickly it happened. I’ve never seen so much broken glass in a kitchen. The bowls and plate are from a vintage set, Franciscan earthenware; they are lovely, but fragile: We’ve now broken at least 7 pieces this summer. We recently bought plates from Target for everyday use. They are not lovely, but they will do the job and I will not feel that I’m losing a tiny piece of history each time something breaks. Our glasses are from Ikea. “I guess I’m glad we got those cheap ones from Ikea,” I remarked to my husband, reflecting on the carnage. This week I wonder if, instead of buying cheap things that we can easily lose, we should buy only precious ones. Would we be more careful if we didn’t have the idea that there’s always more we can afford?

It’s a bit amazing to me now, that my first husband and I were able to buy the home we did, 31 years ago. It’s in a neighborhood that young couples like the one we were then could never think of buying in now. We moved to Portland from Seattle just so that we could buy a house; renting felt like throwing money away, but Seattle had already become unaffordable. Or so we thought. We wanted to live close-in to the city. We wanted an older home with character. We couldn’t have those things in Seattle, but we could in Portland. We left the place that had given us each other to move to one that we thought could give us more. “We can always move back,” we told ourselves. It took us more than 9 months to remove the wallpaper in the living room and paint it. It took 27 for our marriage to end. I have wanted to move back for decades, but I am still here. We had no idea what we were doing.

Washing the dishes recently, I realized I’ve come to like washing the dishes by hand. Something about the soap and warm water, the ritual of it. While the chicken finished baking in the oven, I washed all the things I’d used to prepare it. I’m learning to do this, to wash as I go, in small batches. I like the small, neat stacks on the bamboo dish rack, the cups that fit perfectly on the bottom shelf. I’ve realized we don’t need as many dishes as I once thought. We wash so frequently that we don’t run out of them in the cupboard.

My Soapstone experience was transformative, but not in the way its founders and board hoped it would be. For an entire week, I did nothing but write. I had no children to feed or bathe or stimulate or soothe, no papers to grade, no partner to answer to or tend. I had only to feed myself and write, and by the end of the week I understood in new, deep ways why I was having such a hard time getting anything written. I concluded that writing was something I was going to put on a shelf. I could always come back to it later, I told myself.

I remember being so frustrated by the stacks of dirty dishes in the sink of that first house. I tried to wash things as I used them, but my husband did not. He preferred to let them pile up and wash a big stack at once. He was reading Thich Nhat Hanh, and I remember him telling me something once about being mindful, and how washing dishes was an opportunity to practice mindfulness. I remember wishing he would practice it more. I remember my mind then feeling like a Habitrail, full of thoughts scurrying along plastic tubes and spinning a metal wheel in a mad dash to nowhere. I did not care about mindfulness. I just wanted someone to wash the damn dishes so I could go grade the stacks of essays piled up in my school bag.

I need to say this about my first husband: I was terrible to him, and he did not deserve it. I could tell you the reasons why I cheated on him, all the ways in which I was broken that I now understand and did not then, but none of that matters. I was wrong, and I did damage, and although I can understand why I did what I did and can feel for my younger self the kind of love one has for a child who hasn’t understood the impacts of their choices–I can never fully absolve myself for what I did. I was not a child. I broke something others loved and that I loved, and there was nothing beautiful in it. I would give so many things to be able to go back and choose differently. Do differently.

I remember, after my twins were born, needing to wash the breast pump paraphernalia by hand; the plastic couldn’t go in the dishwasher. I remember my second husband, my children’s father, telling me that he didn’t like me leaving them on the counter to dry. He was afraid they would make his first son, a teen-ager, feel uncomfortable, because, you know…. I remember looking at him blankly, dumbly, numb from sleep deprivation and soreness and constant physical need. I remember looking at him and saying nothing and blinking very slowly, a thing I did with him when I felt overwhelmed. It wasn’t something I did consciously or deliberately; it took me a good long while to even realize it was something I did. I remember him, later, telling me how much he hated it when I blinked slowly. Sometimes things break silently, or so quietly you don’t realize they’re breaking until it’s too late.

“Can we have an agreement to dry the dinner plates immediately, and not put them on the drying rack?” I ask, after the night of shattering. My husband concurs, and that night we wash the dishes together, placing small items on the rack and drying the larger ones immediately.

Sometime in the midst of the first year of the pandemic, I began to feel that home is my holy place. I wondered if I can find something I’m looking for if I devote myself to it. I wrote on my blog that I want to “become a grown-up in ways that I previously have not.” A full-blown book I wanted to write took shape in my mind. I remembered my first husband and his ideas about mindfulness when washing dishes. I reached out to ask him which of Thich Nhat Hahn’s books he would recommend as a starting place, and he replied kindly and gracefully. (We have found our way to a place where such a thing is possible, a miracle I never expected and probably don’t deserve.) He spoke again about dishwashing. “If you find yourself washing the dishes, and you’re thinking about anything else, then pause until you are experiencing everything in the moment. It’s like sitting under a freeway in your mind. Like cars, thoughts will pass through. But if you’re present you won’t get in and go for a ride.” I think of this months later, after the night of broken dishes, when I am cleaning up from a meal, and I want to focus on the washing–the warmth of the water running over my hands, the viscous texture of the soap, the beauty of the pattern on the worn plate–but all I can think about is how this life I’ve lived is so beautiful and fragile I sometimes feel my heart will shatter from it.

***

This is mostly a rough, first draft. I don’t like to share rough, first drafts, but that’s all I’ve got this week. This week was full–of heat, smoke, and dire news (climate, Covid). We went north to visit my parents, so we escaped Portland’s 100+ temps, but it was smoky and still too-warm, even there. I got to have a lovely visit with an old friend and her parents. I had good, long conversations with my parents. My brother looks well. While we were away, the glass top of our patio table shattered. My son, our house-sitter, has no idea what happened. Neither do I; could it have been the heat? Who knows. Some of my patio plants appear to be dead, but the dog is still alive. I take what I can get, grateful for it.

On the edge of the cusp

The morning light shining at the end of the dark hall, a pull to the garden.

Birds twittering, chittering, beating, swooping. Tomatoes swelling on their vines and branches laden with pears. Dusty lavender dotted with bees. Trumpets vines blaring red siren songs to the hummingbirds. The holes where rats come into and out of our yard. (Who does “our” contain?) The hot noon hour when, from the bedroom window, changing out of my gardening clothes, I watch two of them run up the branches of the blueberry bushes and eat our fruit. Brazen. 

Watering the hostas. The ones with pale, thin leaves are fragile, always wilted, their edges constantly crisped. We vow to buy only the ones with thick green leaves now. I consider reserving my water for the strong and letting the needier ones wither to papery remains I can toss without compunction into the compost bin.

The compost bin loaded with thorny sticks, dried up blooms, bristly thistles I pull from the vegetable box: Things I deem weeds, or overgrown, or dead. The sickly sweet scent of rotting kitchen scraps–cantaloupe rinds, probably–wafting upward. I shut the lid. 

Hermiston cantaloupe slices I present to my son at dinner, telling him that I don’t buy the other kind now, the ones shipped here from faraway places, so the time to enjoy these is now. “I don’t like how hard and tasteless they are,” I tell him, speaking of the ones we can buy during other months. “I like cantaloupe firm,” he tells me, and I mumble words about nature and carbon and footprints because I can’t find the right ones for what I feel. I know he’s only expressing a preference for texture but I despair a bit for the future just the same. He’s acclimated to his time, which isn’t mine. He’s never eaten watermelon with black seeds. He’s never spit them out at his cousins, laughing, while sitting at the kids’ table in his grandmother’s kitchen. 

My grandfather cutting cantaloupe on a summer morning as he readies for work, the light shining through the sink window’s short curtains. He sprinkles his melon, soft and vivid as the Hermistons I offer to my son like jewels, with salt. Paul Harvey’s voice is tinny through the radio, and my grandmother is still sleeping in their bed upstairs. I like not needing to say anything, having him all to myself, being cared for only by him, who makes me a piece of toast in the toaster that now sits on a shelf in my mother’s kitchen. He dies of a heart attack at 63. The night he dies, I sleep in that bed with my grandma, in his spot. 

I sit at my kitchen table and read a piece my friend Sharon is writing about grandmothers and canning and writing. About preservation and sustenance. She writes that she cans with words, not food. Then I read my friend Bethany’s piece about doubting the purpose of writing, she who writes multiple books through decades of mothering and teaching. I consider my history, the jars of applesauce my great-grandmother sent to our suburban house every fall that she made from apples grown on the farm, and how three generations later I am only just now, well into a sixth decade of living, beginning to learn how to grow food. I consider the tomatoes ripening in a bowl on the table, the literal fruits of my labor. I consider the one book of poems I cultivated, now nearly 20 years ago, and I wonder if the writer in me is a pale hosta. Maybe she is. Or maybe she is a rat, scratching at survival through blog posts and Instasnippets. Maybe she is an invasive, drought-resistant perennial with deep, woody roots. Maybe she is none of those things and all of those things. Maybe she is everything in the garden–the hostas and rinds and rats and tomatoes and trumpets and weeds and bees, being fed by whatever they can find there, wherever they can find it. It’s a conceit that brings comfort, here on the edge of the cusp of autumn, these brief weeks of both harvesting and fading. 

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This is another bit of writing that grew from exercises for my class on the braided essay. One exercise was about a journey (my trip down the hallway and into the garden), and one was about using sensory images of a place (or series of places), and I was feeling behind (my own arbitrary and self-imposed deadlines, as the course is self-paced), so I combined them.

I appreciate assignments that require me to pay close attention to my life. It’s been a pretty nothing-special week, on the surface of things, one that I might easily forget. I like that the simple act of listing concrete things I notice took me to a place I wasn’t expecting, and cemented memories I’m sure I’ll return to in the future. (Maybe that, alone, is reason enough for any of us to write.) Time is feeling quite non-linear these days, so present-tense seemed right for the entire piece.

I remember: Elementary school edition

I remember the radiator clanking on a winter day as rain slid down the panes of our second-story classroom windows.

I remember the teacher who kept a monkey in a cage in his classroom. He was never my teacher. 

I remember Mrs. Anderson, who was old and had a crippled foot, playing hopscotch with us at recess, dragging her foot behind her as she hopped.

I remember sitting in a small circle at the front of the room, reading about Dick and Jane and Sally, the most boring children I’d ever met.

I remember Mike, the boy who only drew cars. No matter what we were supposed to be doing, Mike drew cars. 

I remember wondering about Mike, marveling at Mike, envying Mike. He disappeared early in the fall, to go to “a different school.” (No, he hadn’t moved.) I didn’t want to disappear, so I knew I could never be like Mike. 

I remember the lunch cart rumbling down the hallway’s wavy wooden floors. I remember waiting for it to stop outside our classroom door, lining up to push our plastic plates along the cart’s metal counter, and hearing food thunk onto plates. 

I remember salty gravy laced with stringy chicken over a snowball of mashed potatoes, watery green beans dull and flat from a can, wiggly red jello squares, tiny cartons of lukewarm milk. I remember loving the salty gravy.

I remember loving Mrs. Anderson, and knocking on the door of her house one time with my friend Sandy, who lived down the street from her, and how she gave us each a cookie but wouldn’t let us come inside. 

I remember being moved to Mrs. Smallwood’s class in October, and being scared, and meeting Kimberlee and Ellen, and how small the playground looked from the second-floor classroom, and how wonderfully amazing our mail cubbies were, and how glad I was that the grownups had moved me, even though I didn’t really know why.

I remember that happiness was a warm puppy.

I remember coloring a picture of Snoopy while listening to a scratchy record singing about a land where children were free. 

I remember my body tensing when I had to walk to the board to do a math problem, my silent panic every time we raced to do 100 math problems in one minute.

I remember not caring about when the train would arrive. 

I remember the reading corner, with carpet and low shelves and pillows, and reading and laughing and talking there with Kimberlee and Ellen when we finished our work early.

I remember Laura and Mary, Henry and Beezus and Ramona, Freddy the Pig, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

I remember Mrs. Diefendorf telling Kimberlee and Ellen and I that we wouldn’t be friends when we were adults, and how we called her Mrs. Beefenbarf when she couldn’t hear us.

I remember using jump ropes as halters and being sometimes the horse, sometimes the rider, my hair flapping like a mane the recess I cantered through puddles again and again and again.

I remember sitting through the entire Christmas assembly with wet pants, soaked in Mrs. Smallwood’s disapproval. I remember getting very cold. 

I remember Miss G.’s eyes, narrow slits in a puffy face, and her mean mouth.

I remember Miss G. scolding me in front of the class for reading my own book on my lap under my desk during her read-aloud time.

I remember using stubby nubs of pencils because Miss G. hated them.

I remember sitting on the playground with friends and reading books during recess. I remember Margaret and Dinky Hocker and Alice and Harriet the Spy.

I remember racing the boys on field day, flat Keds slapping hard dirt. I remember winning.

I remember Mrs. Hoffman leaving the classroom and Butch and Mike standing on top of their desks and dancing and giving the finger to the ceiling. I remember laughing, and I remember the principal walking in. 

I remember hating the principal. 

I remember fearing what the principal would do to those boys as he pointed at them from the door and glared at all of us as though we were equally culpable. Maybe we were. Maybe he was, too. (He had a paddle and used it.)

I remember Mike saying he wanted a BJ and I didn’t know what that was and when my friend whispered “blow job” I still didn’t know what it was.

I remember my friend telling me what a blow job is.

I remember hating fifth grade. 

I remember my school closing, the one with two stories and tall windows and clanking radiators and the classroom with the monkey cage, and I remember walking two blocks further to what had been the junior high but was now our new elementary school. It had breezeways, not hallways with wood floors, and my 6th grade classroom was a long, chilly walk away from the library. It had new kids from another closed elementary school. We still ate lunch in our classrooms. Mine had cinderblock walls with only one window next to the door. (Maybe. Or maybe I just remember it that way.)

I remember new girls who wore lip gloss and kissed boys and said mean things about highwaters.

I remember missing the days we played horses at recess. 

I remember asking Allison what highwaters were, and her pointing to the hem of my corduroy pants. I remember wondering how she knew that and why I didn’t.

I remember the boys snapping our bra straps, and no one saying anything about it. I remember craving their attention and hating it. 

I remember asking my mother for a bra, not to support the buds emerging from my chest, but to flatten them.

I remember my mother re-making new pants because any that fit my torso were too short, but my hips weren’t wide enough to support any that were long enough to cover my ankles.

I remember the principal I hated calling me to his office to accuse me of things I didn’t do, to tell me I was nobody, to shame me. I remember feeling shame even though I was innocent.

I remember being guilty. I remember leading a pack of girls in making Donita cry in the bathroom. I remember hating Donita and not knowing why, and hating myself for making her cry, and hating the other girls for following me, and hating Donita even more for crying behind the locked door of a bathroom stall while we taunted her from the sinks.

I remember going to the library every Saturday and consuming books like they were candies. I remembering reading all weekend long to go numb, to pass time, to dream, to escape.

I remember my friend Toni developing full breasts when the rest of us wore training bras, and I remember the day Mr. Buer had us vote on whether or not he should throw Toni’s beautiful map in the garbage because she’d turned it in without her name on it, and my despair at things I couldn’t name as I watched it slide into the wastebasket while tears rolled down her cheeks.

I remember my dad, years later, telling me that it was so hard to watch me lose my confidence as I became a teen-ager and what happened, anyway? 

I subscribe to a weekly email from Creative Nonfiction, which means that I start my Sunday mornings with a usually fantastic read of a short literary essay. If I were going to commit myself to writing in any genre, it would likely be creative nonfiction, as it combines prose with elements of poetry. That’s always been my sweet spot as both a reader and writer.

Creative Nonfiction offers classes, and I recently saw one on writing the braided essay, a subgenre of creative non-fiction that is probably the closest to poetry. It was self-paced, online, and inexpensive. Interaction with others is completely voluntary and can be as little or as much as I’d like. Sold. (They aren’t paying me to promote this. Just sharing something I like.)

The class began this last week, and our first exercise was to do some “I remember” writing. This is something I used to have students do a lot in the early stages of writing because “I remember” freewriting is an easy way to generate material to work with. It’s a way of getting things out without thinking too much, making it more likely that happy accidents and surprises can happen. We had a mentor text (an excerpt from Joe Brainard’s I Remember, a “book length memoir in prose poem form” and now on my TBR list), and the writing above is what came of my exercise.

Although I tend to dance around the question of what I’m going to do if I’m not working as a full-time educator (I don’t want to feel tied down and I truly don’t know yet), I know I want to write more. I don’t have anything I’m burning to write, but I’m pretty sure that if I dedicate some regular time to it, things will start to happen. I suppose I don’t want to publicly declare writing as a Thing I Will Do because that can quickly feel fraught with expectations (from myself and others) and I don’t want them. At any rate, I knew this class would be just the right thing to kick-start me; I do better with a little structure and something to respond to. I think it will prove to be a good use of $30.00. (Enrollment is still open.)